Monday, December 07, 2009

A New Infrastructure

Full Service House (prelude to volunteer corvee)

By John Taylor; 2009 Dec 07, Qawl 15, 166 BE

Precis: The egalitarian tradition of Scandinavia led to the invention of the Kollektivhus, a partly-communal, semi-private arrangement of apartments relying partly on volunteer labor to accomplish a full complement of services. Hillside housing will be an attempt, after the formation of a world government, to improve upon this model and make it universal. Designed correctly, the collective, full service house can be an environmentally benign way of life, as well as a superior alternative for both poor and wealthy. 

During the Renaissance slavery was still so engrained in social mores that its abolition was unthinkable. Even in Thomas More's ideal society slavery persisted. In his novel, Utopia, he imagined lawbreakers in this island society punished by being reduced to bondslaves, and any slave who refused to work was executed.

Centuries later, chattel slavery had been abolished in the Victorian age. However, cheap labour persisted. It was still expected that members of the privileged classes would employ as many as a dozen servants to run their large households. Young men were helpless without their valet and young women their handmaids to dress them and wait on their every whim. Keeping servants was universal among the privileged elite. It was common even for members of the middle classes to employ at least one servant to handle mundane chores. Victorians would have found it difficult to believe that our middle classes do not hire personal servants.

Here in North America it is expected that everyone will be a savvy consumer; all but a tiny elite spend a large percentage of their day shopping. Studies have found that while labour-saving devices make housework tasks lighter work, they still do not substantially reduce the amount of time they demand. In spite of this, the ideologies of commercialism and consumerism pervade the electronic media. Their propaganda persuades us not to feel deprived in comparison with our Victorian forebears.

The only exception to this complacency was the youth movement of the 1960's and 1970's. At this time idealistic young people rebelled against their elders' bourgeous ways by retreating back to nature. They longed for change in thought, dress and food. Later, disillusioned by the drugs and violence that came out of the movement, many "opted out" and fled into the wilderness to live as hermits, or to experiment with communal living on cooperative farms. This was when organic farming started as an alternative to the chemical kind, which had become the norm; in modified form organics have become a billion dollar industry, the fastest growing branch of mainstream agriculture.

For the "flower children" the ideal was an egalitarian, leaderless community run by common consent, a truer democracy than the one that had been implicated in Vietnam and the Cold War. Unfortunately, few communes lasted longer than a decade. Those that endured were run by strong leaders often more autocratic than the old-style leaders in society at large. After a brief burst of popularity, the commune movement all but died out in North America.

In Europe, where old ways are perhaps a more vivid memory, the luxury of having servants was still fresh. The best aspects of this tradition were rather inconguously combined with the commune movement in what are called full-service, or "Kollektivhus" housing developments designed by certain Danish and other Scandinavian architects and planners. These designers erected entire housing blocks using some of the best principles of an idealistic generation. Clever design and cooperative contracts permitted many of the benefits of living in a large Victorian household run by a bevy of cooks, maids and butlers, without having to hire or fire anybody.

In fact, a few communal Kollektivhus dwellings even predated the youth revolution, starting in the early 1950's. In his history of housing, Norbert Schoenauer writes,

"One of the first postwar Danish collective houses, Hoje Soborg (1951) designed by architects P. E. Hoff and B. Windinge, was built in a Copenhagen suburb, Gladaxe. The 120 dwellings of this five-story elevator serviced building ranged in size from one to four rooms. Apart from a doorman, collective services included a common dining room with central kitchen catering, housekeeping services, a children's center serving all age groups, two guest rooms for tenant's visitors, and, at the roof level, common party and meeting rooms with access to a terrace garden." (6000 years of housing, by Norbert Schoenauer, WW Norton & Co., New York, 2000, p. 460)

The evolution of collective or communal housing continued. By the late 1970's an improved version was now called a "service house." One in development in Stockholm was so popular that it had a waiting list of 13,000 names. Schoenauer writes,

"Collective habitation is an attractive proposition to many families and households. A young working couple would find it very convenient to move into an apartment building where food catering and housecleaning is available on request. Similarly, a new family, transferred from their hometown to an unfamiliar city, would find security in a collective house. Working single parents with preschool children would benefit greatly from using the in-house day-care and kindergarten. Elderly couples and retired people too can benefit from collective services offered in these buildings. In particular, single people: whether young, middle-aged, or elderly, divorced, or widowed: are all potential collective house residents who want to live in comfort without sacrificing their privacy." (Id.)

As a result of the high demand, many of these Scandinavian projects were built too large and tall. They were also criticized for being overly institutionalized. It proved difficult to maintain a homey, informal atmosphere in a high-rise. Meanwhile, in North America there has been no effort to see that these in-home services reached more than a tiny elite.

The most frequently raised bone of contention between the sexes is the fact that family members must do household chores, and this inevitably ends up being the women. The availability of servants, or cooperative services, would remove this problem once and for all, and would raise the lot of female homemakers more than anything else. The same historian continues,

"If Otto Fick were alive today, and he visited an American family living in a luxury apartment complex like Chicago's River city, a building with 24 hour doorman service and amenities such as swimming pool, sauna, exercise room, rooftop party room, and roof gardens as well as food delivery from an in-house restaurant, he would insist the River city is a Kollektivhus, although in reality it is a mixed-use development. In fact, most American luxury apartment buildings offer services to the residents that are similar to those of collective habitation. But Fick's original intention of making similar services accessible to moderate or lower income groups remains just a dream." (Ib., 460-462)

This dream I share with Fick. I think that something resembling collective, full service houses will become the norm after the foundation of a world government. I call the improved version "hillside housing," because the side exposed to the sun in these developments will be legally required to be devoted to agriculture and solar panels, while the shady side is devoted to human residence. As cooperative, full service houses, they will be attractive to both rich and poor, and could replace other forms of housing within a generation.

One of the most attractive features of these communal housing projects in Scandinavia is the fact that future residents often have a say in their design long before they are built. This adds on a whole new level of democracy. If the entire design -- not just superficial modifications -- are decided by actual users and residents, this enables a continuity between past and future that is unheard of in other forms of architecture.

"Since most of these communities were planned and designed with the participation of their future residents, tenure, size, an organization of the community varies in a project approach.  However, the complement of private homes and communal facilities are shared by all. Most early communal dwelling clusters were privately owned developments: later nonprofit cooperatives and cooperatives with index linked mortgages as well as rental units were introduced but the most frequent tenure type is still based on private ownership." (Schoenauer, 460)

The big wrench in the works of communal housing is politics. It has proven very difficult for people with widely varying backgrounds, opinions and outlooks to arrive at democratic decisions. The few communal projects that endure tend to do so by ejecting dissenters. This sacrifices variety and diversity among members. Schoenauer points out:

"Communal housing groups seem to function best, and with less friction, if their members share similar values and have similar backgrounds. This is one of the reasons they are so successful in Denmark, a country with a culturally homogeneous population. It is tempting to compare the members of communal housing to a large extended family or a clan, but there are two basic distinctions: (1) membership is voluntary, and (2) there is no patriarch or leader and all important decisions are made democratically." (Ibid., 466)

While everybody likes full participatory democracy as an ideal, in practice consulting about mundane issues is slow drudgery. It consumes time and energy and -- let us face it -- it is extremely tedious for most people most of the time. Participants who try to reduce their boredom by spicing up the deliberations only stir up more contention, which tears at the roots of the tree. Yet the potential benefits of communal living are too great to ignore. Schoenauer, in summing up the educational advantages of one experiment in communal housing called Bofaellesskaber, points out that such contacts can be edifying too, forcing upon residence the discipline that democracy demands. Here,

"First, individuals have the option at all times either to enjoy the privacy of their own homes or to engage in social activities the community's common areas. Second, these residential communities foster voluntary social interaction as well as social and environmental responsibility; most communities practice composting and recycling. Last, but not least, they foster first-hand experience in harmonious communal living: not unlike members of band-type food gathering societies, they learn to compromise after realizing that what is good for the individual may not always be in the best interests of the community." (Ib., 466)

Other problems that have turned up in service house developments are less edifying. The drawbacks tend to be the same as in a commune: how do you maintain both unity of thought and economic viability? How to reconcile volunteer services with commercial, for-profit enterprises? How do you maintain informal, consensual management among large numbers of tenants? Schoenauer writes,

"Experience shows that a moderate sized collective house, with 60 to 100 dwellings and collective services limited exclusively to residents, may be desirable from a social point of view but unrealistic economically. Moderate sized collective habitation is only viable if the residents are willing to operate it communally, as is the case in low-rise communal houses such as Bofaellesskaber, in Denmark, or in a mixed-use apartment building where collective services are provided by in-house commercial outlets." (Ib., 460)

Next time we will discuss corvee labour, the one modification that will enable collective houses to cross over from an obscure alternative lifestyle to a necessity wherever human beings reside.


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